New Conservation Center Brings Hope to Injured Wildlife

Apr 25, 2017

PERRY TWP. Some wounded animals under the care of the Stark County Park District will be moving next year from the sticks into a modern medical wonderland.

Construction of The Joseph J. and Helen M. Sommer Wildlife Conservation Center was marked Wednesday by a ground-breaking for the $2.8 million facility.

About 60 people, including local civic leaders, board members and employees of Stark Parks, attended the dedication for the project at Sippo Lake Park.

The new, 12-room structure will offer an animal clinic and exam rooms, in addition to education exhibit space, a classroom, office space and public restrooms. Construction begins this spring, and completion is scheduled for 2018.

Bob Fonte, director of Stark Parks, called the effort a significant step forward in providing “outstanding care to injured wildlife.” The project, which includes a 9,400 square-foot building and exterior animal enclosure to be built at 800 Genoa Ave. NW in Sippo park, is funded largely through the park district’s budget.

“This site represents a theme of conservation that’s come full circle,” said Fonte. “The former pole building that housed wildlife here was built with little or no budget.”

The park district’s former Sanders Center — a pole structure acquired in 1986 — was crowded and put predators and prey in close proximity. It was demolished to help make room for the new facility. In addition, the old center had little or no accommodations for park staff, including restrooms.

Since late 2016, wounded animals have been residing in temporary facilities at Fichtner Park and Quail Hollow Park, both in Lake Township, according to Caitlin Decker, marketing assistant for Stark Parks. Hawks, owls, toads, possums, snakes, lizards and a red fox are among the animals being cared for by park staff and volunteers, she said.

The new center will have more space to care for the friendly creatures, Decker added.

“It’ll be a more healthy environment with no overcrowding or predators and prey getting too close to each other,” she said.

The new building was designed by SoL Harris/Day Architecture, and construction on the project was awarded to Summit Construction Co.

Animal rehabilitation

On average, the wildlife center has about 2,000 animals a year come through its doors for care, and patients range from babies needing nutrition to animals hit by cars or lawnmowers. Some animals have suffered from frostbite, or they’re young animals unable to hunt and require additional help.

The wounded wildlife are cared for by staff — three full-time and two part-time wildlife rehabilitation specialists — and numerous volunteers at the center until they are able to return to the wild.

All injured animals are brought in by individuals who find them on sides of roads, on public trails or on private property, Decker said.

“We try to help (animals) when humans cause damage,” she said in reference to mowing or driving accidents.

Stephon Echague, supervisor of animal care for Stark Parks, said rehab staff and volunteers help treat infections, viruses and amputations among animals brought to the wildlife facilities. Orphaned animals are also cares for, in addition to birds, owls or hawks that have broken wings.

Stark Parks does not accept deer or bears.

Sommer a Pioneer of Parks

Joseph Sommer, whose name will be on the new building, helped to establish the Stark Parks more than 50 years ago.

In 1967, Probate Judge Reuben Z. Wise, via authority under Ohio Revised Code, created the Stark County Metropolitan Park District and named Sommer, now 89, as a commissioner of the new district, according to Stark Parks.

In 1985, Sommer traded in his park gig for a state position by being named director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, a position he held for 20 years. He’s been a major financial backer of the new wildlife center, and contributions have been made in the name of his wife, Helen, who is deceased.

Sommer, who attended Wednesday’s dedication, said he is honored and humbled that the new building will bear his and his late wife’s names.

“The beginning of this wildlife and conservation center is a beautiful thing,” Sommer said. “Helen would be happy, and I’m very happy, too.”

By Steven M. Grazier, staff writer - Canton Rep